Growing vegetables on terraces

Posted: Wednesday 24 April 2013
by Kate Bradbury

For the last couple weeks I've been on something of a 'grand tour' of South America. I've visited gardens and seen some interesting horticultural practices.

Inca terraces

For the last couple weeks I've been on something of a 'grand tour' of South America. Along the way, I've visited many gardens and seen some interesting horticultural practices. This is the first in a series of four blogs, documenting the fascinating things I've seen.

In Peru, I visited the ruins of the Incas, who ruled there between the 13th and 16th centuries. I spent five days trekking the Inca trail, exploring whole towns built into the sides of mountains, impressive irrigation systems and rows and rows of terraces.

As well as being brilliant at building homes that could withstand the many earthquakes of the region, the Incas were also great gardeners. In their stone terraces, they grew many types of potato and corn, as well as quinoa, yuca, amaranth, squashes, broad beans and also lupins, which they harvested for their seeds.

The terraces proved perfect for the production of food. The stone walls would warm up quickly, creating a warmer microclimate within the terrace and enabling some crops to be grown at higher altitude than they would normally grow.

The terraces were filled with a mixture of sand, rock and topsoil, and fertilised with compost and guinea pig manure. Waterfalls were diverted to act as an irrigation system. They either trickled directly into the terraces, or into nearby fountains so that they could be easily watered by hand, although sometimes they didn't need watering at all. Also, these terraces helped prevent mountain erosion.

From a wildlife gardening perspective, this style of gardening is excellent. To this day, bumble and solitary bees nest in the nooks and crannies of the dry stone walls. Countless other insects and spiders also inhabit the rocks, and at lower altitudes, lizards take advantage of the warm, dry spaces concealed within. Many of these creatures would have provided a free source of pest control for the Incas' crops.

This system of terraces is thought to have fed millions. It was so successful that many Andean people are today re-learning how to raise food in this way, since the pressures of climate change force them to return to growing (more resilient) native plants using traditional methods. The Incas inspired me, too, despite the fact that I'll never have a mountain to carve a garden out of, or a waterfall to divert to my crops.

My garden is tiny and flanked by two uninspiring walls that I have difficulty growing anything up. I've only ever considered growing climbers up them, but I wonder if I can adapt the Inca system to create mini terraces to utilise the space better. A series of troughs hung from trellises, for example, might work well, or I could just build beds into them. They'd be made of stone, of course, and top-dressed with guinea pig manure for the ultimate homage to the Incas.

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oldchippy 24/04/2013 at 19:53

Terraced grow bag's may be your answer Kate,Most new properties we have looked at have garden's to small for a grow bag let a lone a terrace,I saw a house on line in Devon with a garden like your photograph just a bit to remoat on Dart moor. Oldchippy.

Peace22 11/05/2013 at 23:15

Thanks for the interesting read! I have made 2 raised beds using wooden boxes from a builders yard. The squashes will be growing out of them and should look pretty with the fruits hanging out. Good luck with your garden and looking forward to Part 2,3 and 4. :0)